Mantel masterpieces

Maquettes from one of Pompeo Coppini's many public commissions throughout the state, the Littlefield Fountain on the University of Texas at Austin campus, are available for adoption during the Coppini Academy's Adopt a Masterpiece event on Sunday, November 14. Sponsors will receive the first bronze casting of the maquette.

A drive to save Pompeo Coppini's maquettes brings his artistry back into the spotlight

Janice Yow Hindes is matronly in the best sense. The immediate past president of the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts, she exudes an eye-of-the-storm calm as she describes her plan to preserve the plaster models the school's namesake used to propose and build some of his best-known public works.

Pompeo Coppini was an Italian immigrant who lived up to his rich name, suggestive of volcanic explosions and monumental change. His lifesize, and larger, sculptures can be found throughout the state and elsewhere, but locally he is known best for the Alamo Cenotaph, featuring the heroes of the Alamo in limestone relief (Coppini, says Hindes, was instrumental in saving the Alamo from commercial development. The would-be hoteliers contacted him to commission work for their project, but he started a save-the-Alamo campaign instead).

Coppini is responsible for many of our iconic images of historical figures such as W. B. Travis and Robert E. Lee, and his portrayal of heroicism is classical in form and philosophy. But his subjects' faces are notable for their unvarnished humanity, and his renditions of contemporaries, such as Governor James Hogg, bear the weight of real life in their shoulders (and in Hogg's case, his exceedingly rotund belly). His sense of motion was also strong, and in a vignettes of adults with children he captures the tenderness of the relationship without sentimentality.

Casting a big shadow,
Adopt a masterpiece

1-5pm Mon-Fri, Nov 14-22
Opening reception: 2-5pm Sun, Nov 14
Coppini Academy of Fine Arts
115 Melrose Place
It's possible to study these details up close because Hindes spent a good deal of her term as president digging through the old tool shed, finding the plaster maquettes under fertilizer bags and in damp corners, and bringing them back into the light of day. She realized their value immediately, she says, and she successfully applied for a grant from the San Antonio Arts Council to help preserve a handful of the models by casting them in bronze. The Stevens Foundry in Bulverde, which cast many works by Coppini's well-known protégée Waldeen, offered to do the sets at an "incredible price," says Hindes. An anonymous donor contributed the money to cast four more, including supple horses and a steer whose hide seems to ripple in the sunlight.

But dozens of pieces remain in a fragile state, and to save as many of them as possible, Hindes has come up with a smart little plan. At a reception and opening on November 14, patrons can bid to "adopt" a maquette for amounts ranging from $1,200 to roughly $3,500. With that sum, the Academy will have three initial bronze castings made (ultimately they will make editions of 30), the first of which will go to the adopter. Proceeds from additional sales of the bronzes will be used to preserve maquettes for which it might be harder to find a sponsor.

Plaster models and bronze versions of those that have already been cast fill the modest rectangular studio on the second floor of the Academy. A large Oriental rug, wooden floors, and the Forest Green walls mimic a sense of old-world refinement, but somehow the room smells and feels like a parish hall. Hindes offers her afternoon guests a glass of wine from a bottle that's chilled in a trophy cup Coppini won as a young emigré in a New York City float contest. Coppini was not a monetarily astute man, says Hindes, and he often built a new studio for a new commission. The school's home, located on Melrose Place just west of Broadway, was built for the Cenotaph project, and students now work at their easels in a spacious, vertically L-shaped room where a line of busts forms an imposing wainscoting.

In the small "bone room," where additional Coppini maquettes quietly rest alongside plaster models by Waldeen, a broken water horseman from the fabulous Littlefield Fountain on the University of Texas at Austin campus balances uneasily. An almost grotesque melding of the fantastic and the real, the fountain vibrates with frozen energy, with agony and glory, visible even in the foot-long maquettes. Another of the three horsemen rests on a pedestal upstairs, awaiting a commission for the second time in its life.

By Elaine Wolff